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Student Voice survey respondents have more favorable views of their own institution’s value and affordability than they do of higher education as a whole, but there’s still lots of room for improvement.

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A recent flash survey by Inside Higher Ed and Generation Lab, part of the Student Voice series, shed light on how delays and other problems associated with the new Federal Application for Financial Aid (FASFA) form are impacting current college students. (Read about that here if you haven’t already, since the data adds dimension to a national conversation that has thus far focused on incoming college students.)

Today, newly released data from that same Student Voice flash survey illuminates current college students’ feelings about higher education’s value and affordability—at their own institution and generally. The survey was fielded April 28 to April 30 from a sample of 1,206 current college students at public and private nonprofit institutions (83 percent four-year and 17 percent two-year) from around the country, with a margin of error of +/- 2.8 percentage points.

Here are the four biggest insights from the survey’s questions on value and affordability, along with related analysis and implications for policy.

Takeaway 1: Most students say they’re getting a valuable education, with some variation by group and institution type.

Asked to rate the value of the college education they’re getting, based on much they’re learning and how they think it will benefit their future— relative to the cost of attendance—nearly all students say it’s highly valuable (39 percent) or somewhat valuable (45 percent). Just about one in 12 (8 percent) says it’s not really valuable, while the rest are neutral (7 percent) or say it’s not at all valuable (1 percent). This is relatively consistent across student demographics such as race, gender, age, family income and political affiliation, as well as institution types, including two-year versus four-year.

Bill DeBaun, senior director of data and strategic initiatives at the National College Attainment Network, says that these findings are “really encouraging and valuable,” considering the negative messaging about return-on-investment in recent years. (Case in point: this Wall Street Journal-NORC poll indicating more than half of Americans don’t think a college degree is worth the cost, or this poll finding doubts among prospective learners. Counterpoint: lots of other research asserting that college still is, in fact, worth it, across a variety of metrics.)

“Four in five students saying what they’re getting is at least a good value is something to hang our hat on, collectively,” DeBaun says. “It is excellent to see that despite all the handwringing from grownups about college not being necessary, students still highly value it for their future, even as it relates to cost.”

Kim Dancy, associate director of research and policy at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonpartisan research and policy nonprofit, has a similar take: that students are able to differentiate between some of the unflattering headlines about higher education (think rising costs, controversies and concerns about the job market) and what their own institutions are actively doing to educate, support and “create a strong sense of school spirit and identity that makes students feel like they are a part of something.”

Looking only at highly valuable ratings, however, some variance emerges. A few differences:

  • About four in 10 white (40 percent) and Hispanic (41 percent) students say their education thus far is highly valuable, compared to closer to three in 10 Black (34 percent) and Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) (31 percent) students.
  • Relatively more students 25 and older (44 percent) than under-25s (38 percent) say their education is highly valuable.
  • Students with lower household incomes are somewhat less likely than those with higher household incomes to rate it highly valuable. For example, 36 percent of students with a reported household income of less than $50,000 say their education is highly valuable, compared to 45 percent of those reporting a household income of $125,000 to $200,000.
  • Democrats are more likely to rate their education highly valuable (42 percent) than are Republicans (36 percent).
  • By region, students in New England (51 percent) are especially likely to view it as highly valuable.
  • Perhaps surprisingly, given tuition differences between institution types, relatively more students at private nonprofit institutions (45 percent) say their education is highly valuable than do their public nonprofit institution counterparts (37 percent).

Takeaway 2: Students have more favorable views of their own institution’s value and affordability than they do of higher education as a whole, but there’s still lots of room for improvement.

Two in three students (68 percent) agree that higher education institutions charge too much for an undergraduate degree. But just one in three (32 percent) agrees their own institution charges too much. On value, very few students (7 percent) agree that higher education institutions in general offer good value for what they charge for an undergraduate degree. Regarding their own institution, more—but not that many more—students say it offers good value for what it charges for an undergraduate degree (26 percent).

This is somewhat surprising, based on students’ generally positive responses to the previous question on educational value. This may be attributable to students here being asked whether they explicitly agree that their institution offers good value for what it charges. And it certainly signals mixed feelings on value and affordability from students.

Sophie Nguyen, senior policy analyst in the education policy program at New America, a nonpartisan think tank, says these differences are compelling.

“When asked about the value of higher ed alone, more than 80 percent of students agreed that higher ed credentials are valuable,” she recaps. “But when asked about the value in relation to cost, students show significant doubt.” Nguyen says that such findings align with other recent public opinion data in higher ed, including one Gallup-Lumina Foundation survey finding that nearly all adults say at least one kind of postsecondary credential is very valuable, but that cost remains a major barrier to actual enrollment.

Dancy agrees that the dueling data is significant. “It seems like if your education is worth it, then you’re going to say that it’s also affordable. But what [students are] actually picking up on is pretty nuanced, and this recognition that college is worth it in the long run—but that it still can be really difficult to cover tuition and nontuition expenses while students are enrolled.” Both of those things are crucial in thinking about value and affordability, and consistent with research on lifetime outcomes for college graduates, she adds.

Ultimately, Dancy says the findings are urging higher ed leaders and policymakers to think about ways to support students in covering not only their tuition costs but also those related to housing, books, food, childcare (where applicable), parking and transportation and unexpected emergencies—“all of those things really play a role in whether students are able to be successful in their higher education.”

Picking up on another dynamic, DeBaun notes that Student Voice respondents seem to exhibit the same attitudes toward their own institutions versus others that people tend to have about, say, their own congressperson versus Congress overall, or their own school district versus public education generally: “That’s to say, respondents’ perceptions are that others’ higher education pathways have relatively more problems, but theirs are a relatively good value.”

More from Student Voice: More than one in three students (41 percent) say their institution’s sticker price—meaning the total yearly cost of a college education (including tuition, materials, room and board, and fees) before any financial aid, scholarships or grants are awarded—is too high. And less than one in three (25 percent) agrees that their own institution’s net price—meaning what they actually pay to attend, after financial aid, scholarships or grants—is sufficiently affordable.

Additionally, just over one in three students (38 percent) believes that the general public underestimates the actual price of a college degree. Fewer (10 percent) say the public overestimates the actual price of a college degree.

Nguyen says all these mixed feelings suggest that cost must have factored into students’ decision where to enroll, and she expresses particular curiosity about how two-year college students feel relative to four-year college students.

So here’s how that works out: About six in 10 community college students (57 percent) say institutions charge too much for undergraduate degrees, compared to about seven in 10 four-year students (71 percent). Probably unsurprisingly, the gap is bigger on whether their own institutions charge too much for an undergraduate degree: just 12 percent of community college students say this, versus 36 percent of four-year students. More than a third of community college students (37 percent) also say their own institution offers good value for what it charges for an undergraduate degree, compared to about a quarter of four-year students (24 percent). And just 21 percent of community college students say their institution’s sticker price is too high, compared to 45 percent of four-year students.

By family income, students in lower brackets have somewhat more favorable views on value and affordability. For example, 35 percent of students with family incomes between $50,000 and $75,000 say their institution’s sticker price is too high, compared to those with family incomes between $125,001 and $200,000. Similarly, 34 percent of those in the $50,000 to $75,000 bracket say their institution’s net price is sufficiently affordable, compared to 15 percent of those in the latter bracket.

By race, white students (72 percent) and Hispanic students (68 percent) are likelier than Black (59 percent) and AAPI (54 percent) to say that higher ed institutions charge too much for an undergraduate degree. White (34 percent) and AAPI (36 percent) students are likeliest to agree their own institutions charge too much for an undergraduate degree, compared to Black (22 percent) and Hispanic (30 percent) students.

Takeaway 3: Students want to see institutional innovation around lowering operational costs, not cuts to academics and student support services.

Asked how institutions should reduce operational costs (and hopefully pass those savings on to them), about half of students select each of the following institutional actions: Invest in renewable energy and other campus sustainability efforts (50 percent); develop partnerships with other colleges to share programs and/or supply costs (48 percent); and decrease spending on athletics (48 percent).

The following options for lowering costs—all of which involve cutting academic and student supports—are highly unpopular: Eliminate faculty tenure (12 percent of students select this); decrease spending on student recreation and wellness facilities and services (12 percent); increase faculty teaching loads (10 percent); cut nonfaculty staff members (9 percent); and make cuts to academic advising and/or other student support services (6 percent).

This is relatively consistent across demographic groups and institution types, with a few differences. Democrat students, for example, are relatively more interested in sustainability efforts (58 percent) and cutting athletic spending (53 percent) than are Republican students (31 percent and 37 percent, respectively). Despite political debates around faculty tenure, Democrats and Republicans are both unlikely to want to eliminate it (10 percent versus 13 percent).

Nguyen from New America says that while students appear eager to find ways to make college more affordable, they’re selective in deciding what to cut. Even if things like tenure and wellness have been criticized elsewhere as spending that makes college more expensive, the responses signal that students see these as “essential for their experience and success at college.”

Takeaway 4: Students see work-based learning opportunities and other curricular possibilities as a means of lowering the cost of attendance.

As for how institutions should otherwise help lower the cost of attendance for students, the No. 1 option from a list of possible institutional actions is working with employers to develop co-op programs, internships or work-study opportunities for students to earn practical experience or financial assistance while working toward a degree (63 percent). Expanding online or hybrid course offerings to reduce facilities costs or increase flexibility for students is also relatively popular (53 percent), as are providing resources and support to allow more high school students to earn pre-college credit through dual enrollment, Advanced Placement or similar programs (50 percent) and offering accelerated degree programs, such as three-year degrees, along with student incentives to take more credit hours per academic term (49 percent).

The remaining options resonate with many students, as well: Increase opportunities for recognition and credit for prior learning or college-level competencies gained in nontraditional settings like the military, workforce or even one’s personal life (45 percent); publish degree pathways and/or other online resources to help students more efficiently navigate their academic paths (42 percent); and strengthen partnerships to streamline the transfer process for students transferring from community colleges or other institutions (40 percent).

Relatively more students at public institutions (56 percent) endorse the idea of increasing online and hybrid course offerings than do those at private nonprofits (41 percent). This option is also much more popular with students in the far West (64 percent) than the New England region (30 percent). Institutions working with employers to develop co-op and other work-based opportunities for students, meanwhile is more popular among private nonprofit institution students (74 percent) than it is among public institution students (60 percent).

While it wasn’t covered in the survey because it’s not a direct institutional action, DeBaun says states’ declining investments in higher ed is an important factor in college affordability.

“Increasing state and/or federal investment in higher education pathways would be helpful for lowering the price that is passed on to students and families,” he underscores. “Much more than something like athletics spending or investing in renewables, public investments in higher education that shift costs away from students and families would be a sizable lever to use.”

Dancy recommends restoring the purchasing power of the federal Pell Grant, the “cornerstone of federal need-based aid”—specifically doubling it to keep up with inflation and rising college costs. Institutions certainly have a role to play in terms of allocating aid budgets and investing in scholarships for students with high levels of financial need, she continues. “But there’s a strong role for both states and the federal government to really prioritize affordability for students—especially students from low-income families.”

The Bottom Line

Offering some additional context, Dancy says college “is something that can provide benefits to everyone. So it’s really unfortunate, a missed opportunity, when students are forced to postpone their college dreams due to financial barriers. And what we see in the data often is that students of color, students from low-income backgrounds and first-generation students are really negatively impacted by rising costs in terms of their ability to pursue higher education.”

It’s therefore imperative to “focus on affordability and the value that higher education provides so that students regardless of race, circumstance, or other background characteristics, can pursue a college degree.”

How do these findings relate to experiences and conversations with students at your own institution? Let us know.

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